Aaron Belz writes poems into the some of the most surprising occasions and places: an alternate ending to It’s a Wonderful Life, the death of Leslie Neilsen, and a place called Irwindale. Not surprisingly, his approach to editing also comes from a unique angle:
How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines?
I don’t have have any tricks, but sometimes I remove words or lines and re-read the poem aloud to see if it moves more quickly. I want my poems to get to the point, because I know that you (the reader) don’t have all day to wait around while I wax poetic. I’m reminded of a poem I tried to write once that began, “It hurts to wax poetic / So usually I just shave.” That couplet’s really about the editing process, I guess. But it did not result in a good poem.
I prefer not to edit or revise at all if I can help it. If a poem stinks, I rarely try to sculpt it toward perfection. I throw it away or file it and start afresh. With my students I sometimes compare writing poems to taking at-bats in baseball. You might strike out. You might foul out. If you do, don’t dwell on it. You might hit a single, and while that’s not a home run, just be thankful and move on. Think about your next plate appearance: how will you adjust your mechanics? revise your approach? I try to get students to revise their approach rather than trying to fix something they’ve already written that might be stinky.
Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”
That’s extremely true! But again, you can also revise your approach. In his class at NYU, Allen Ginsberg taught us, “Revise yourself.” You can read some of my experience in that class here. Ginsberg himself actually did revise, even live in class.
The whole process is inspired, from writing to revising to publishing. What I mean by “inspired” is that you’re taking a risk, doing something new and different with language, and then foisting it on other people. It can be like walking on air. It’s also a lot of hard work.
Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?
I do not. As an English professor, though, I do edit a lot of student work. I guess something that bothers me (my students know this) is when I see the same mistake made more than once, even after I’ve corrected it. If a concept is simple enough I expect them to claim it and change their ways.
Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?
I wish I could share them, but the early drafts don’t exist! I kill them, draft by draft. In the words of Mad Men hunk Don Draper, “I have a life, and it only goes one direction—forward.”